Bullying, lies and broken promises: How the new educational establishment does its business
The tactic of mindlessly abusing anyone who knew more about a subject than he did was famously used by Murdoch journalist Michael Gove, in his term of office as Secretary of State for Education. For Gove in that job, that amounted to a lot of people. They were ‘the blob’. They were ’enemies of promise’. It was the duty of journalists and business people, people apparently suffering what one writer has described as ‘expert envy’, people like Lords Harris and Nash, SPAD Dominic Cummings and serial citizen and husband Rupert Murdoch, to show these experts how things should be done.
The outcome was that schools should be run, not by educationalists, but by . . . journalists and business people – people just like Lords Nash and Harris, and Telegraph journalist, now director of the Free School promoting ‘charity’ The New Schools Network, Toby Young.
Money would be thrown at new types of schools that were no longer accountable to the local authorities in whose council areas they stood, nor to the people who lived there. And in making sure that all schools were like the schools they wanted, they would not worry too much if ordinary people, especially those parents, governors and adults working in schools, were bullied, lied to and betrayed.
So it was, in the spring of 2014, that the local authority responsible for the good order of a small village primary school in Somerset found that it was floundering through lack of leadership. The governors of Castle Primary School in the village of Stoke sub Hamdon had done their best to cover the frequent, and eventually long-term, absence of the head, but they were volunteers with jobs of their own. Usually, an LA would provide interim cover for an absent headteacher to get the school back on its feet. But that hadn’t happened, so when Ofsted came, the inspector found it to be ‘inadequate’. Well, actually he appears not to have done. His first report allegedly just about cleared the school, suggesting it might have the capacity to improve. But this would not have suited anyone’s purposes (other than the parents, governors, staff and children), so the report must have been rewritten, because it wasn’t published until the middle of July, just before the end of the summer term, when the inspection had happened in the first week of May.
The background: How the Castle was captured
In its day, whether governed by traditional rural Conservatives or, more recently, by Liberal Democrats, Somerset had been known as an education authority that believed that all its residents should have access to lifelong education, provided largely in the premises of the local school. Along with neighbouring Devon, and in common with other enlightened Tory-run rural counties such as Cambridgeshire and Leicestershire, Somerset believed in and offered community education. In addition to the statutory 5 to 16 education, schools across the county provided adult education, youth-work, sports and leisure and community facilities. But the Tory council elected in 2010 didn’t believe in that. Not only did they set about dismantling any remaining provision of arts and cultural activities, but they closed down libraries and youth clubs wherever they could. And the opportunity offered by Michael Gove and the new coalition government to get rid of its schools, too, was looked on with relish. Like other LAs, Somerset used a model of school-to-school support shaped by former DfE supremo Michael Barber, a man of impeccable qualifications, to consign unwilling schools to the independent sector of Multi Academy Trusts.
Most of the heads and governors of secondary schools leapt at the chance to set up the self-perpetuating trusts that would take their schools out of the democratically accountable ownership of the county. But, annoyingly, many of the county’s primary schools were small village schools, a lot of them church schools. Almost all were regarded by Ofsted as at least good, so there was little opportunity to step in and hand them over to MATs. In the area of south Somerset straddling the lower reaches of the A303 west of Yeovil, twenty-one primary schools in a five-mile radius were all good or outstanding, and far too small – and embedded in their communities, well-regarded and effectively governed and led – to think that academisation offered any advantages.
So the albeit delayed Ofsted report on Castle School offered a chance too good to miss.
What should have happened
These events occurred between the 2011 Education Act, which updated the conversion process, and the 2016 Act, which removed the need for consultation on forced conversions. The 2011 Act stated unequivocally that, in the event of any maintained school converting to academy status, voluntarily or not, “there must be a consultation on the question of whether the conversion should take place” (my emphasis). So the proper form for an LA would now be:
- Talk to the governors and parents to explain the process;
- Ask governors to explore the benefits and possible drawbacks of converting, including helping to identify potential sponsors;
- Work with the regional Academy Broker – an independent consultant engaged by the DfE to facilitate the conversion – to put forward their own proposals for sponsorship;
- Guide the governing body through the then statutory consultation, and ensure it complied with the law governing all public consultations (see below);
- Oversee the conversion process, should that be the decision of the governors.
(A public consultation must: be at a time when proposals are at a formative stage; give sufficient reasons for its proposals to allow consultees to understand them and respond to them properly; give sufficient time for responses to be made and considered; ensure responses are conscientiously taken into account in finalising the decision; be substantively fair and have the appearance of fairness.” (original emphasis)1 . In this case, it must also “be on the question of whether the conversion should take place” 2.
However, in this Somerset village, the LA decided it would not be inconvenienced by details such as consultations, or by bothersome obstacles like trying to take the community with them. Instead they chose to blame everyone but themselves for the school’s failure, bullied the parents and staff into acquiescence with their plans, and allowed the DfE-selected sponsors to break promises and ride roughshod over the governors and parents.
What actually happened
Here is what they did - the bullying, lies and broken promises
- The professional team of the LA had not provided support to the school and its children, but presented the school’s failure as the fault of the volunteer governors (The LA adviser belatedly wrote: “My priority was to improve leadership at the school which governors had failed to do.” 3).
- At a meeting on the 17th July 2014, immediately after the publication of the report, and months before a consultation was due, the LA told the parents that the school would become an academy, whatever they said or did. (“Special Measures means academy conversion. I was there to re-assure parents and focus them on supporting the school through a difficult period for the benefit of their children rather than expending time and energy on opposing the process.” 4).
- The DfE broker promised the governors that they could explore possible sponsors (“Wendy invited the governors to identify a potential sponsor if they had one in mind” 5). When they approached one and arranged a meeting, they were told that the potential sponsor had been instructed not to attend, as a choice had already been made. So the governors learnt from a third party who the DfE had chosen – a primary school, some 15 miles away. Ironically, the governors had already expressed “grave reservations” about this sponsor (Q: Would the consultation be about whether the school should convert to an academy or not or would it be about whether the school should agree to a particular trust? A: The consultation would focus on an agreed sponsor” 6. In this answer, the broker misrepresents the 2011 Act so as to avoid possible dissent. In the event, of course, the ‘consultation’, such as it was, considered neither “whether the conversion should take place” nor who the sponsor might be, as the DfE’s choice of sponsor was already in place.)
- The DfE and the LA failed to ensure that a statutory consultation took place.
- The sponsors, the broker and the LA promised the governors a role in the appointment of a head : “WW (the broker) urged the governors to move forward with Redstart to start the Headteacher recruitment process as soon as possible as the appointment process is lengthy”7. However, the sponsor, in the presence of the LA adviser, instructed the chair to “exercise his powers (sic) to make a decision on behalf of the governing body . . . and that (the deputy head of the sponsor school) should take up the post of Head of School from January 2015 8. In fact, no such power exists unless there is danger of ‘serious detriment’ to the school, and it is impossible to bring governors together at short notice. In this case, that would be difficult to prove, especially since the governors had been brought together at short notice on numerous occasions since July.
- There was no consultation, either on the required question of whether the school should convert, or on the broker’s alternative non-statutory question on the choice of sponsor. Instead, the school (now run by the sponsor) invited parents and staff to two ‘information meetings’, where attendees were given no opportunity to express views about the conversion, but merely to ask questions about the process 9.
- The sponsors’ signing of the Funding Agreement with the Education Funding Agency in February 2015 assumed that a legal consultation had taken place. The DfE refused to investigate this when it was pointed out to them that no such consultation had taken place.
- The DfE, with the knowledge of the LA, coached the governors and the sponsors in a range of tactics to avoid public engagement with the conversion. This email was sent by the broker to the chair of governors, and copied to the LA adviser and the sponsor’s CEO:
Some advice on next steps;
Ideally the decision of the governing body would remain confidential until an Academy Order is issued, but I realise that would be very difficult in this instance. Communication to parents and staff needs to say that the governing body has decided to ask that the Secretary of State to agree to Castle joining the Redstart Learning Partnership. Please don’t write anything that suggests that a decision has been made, as Ministers don’t like it and both parents and staff would most likely suggest that consultation is therefore invalid. Reassure them that there will be full consultation after the SoS has given agreement in principle, and that you hope this will happen before the end of term, so that there can be consultation in January. It is also important that the message about the benefits of joining the Redstart Learning Partnership are flagged from the start and that all messages are very positive ones. Personally I would avoid the word ‘sponsor’ as it can be quite emotive.” 10
How the new education establishment has embedded these practices
How do these practices, conducted and endorsed by a local authority, a DfE official and an ‘outstanding’ small town primary academy, reflect the national picture? The contention here is that the words and actions of national politicians determine the actions of civil servants, which are then seen as giving permission to speak and act in ways that, a few years previously, would have been anathema to us. This resembles the, perhaps less successful, trickle-down economics theories of the same government.
The key strategies of the new education establishment seem to be:
- Disregarding the parents and the community served by the school. Over some thirty years, the Conservative party, in and out of government, presented the parent body as the answer to the problem of schools, including developing various models of ‘parent power’, such as vouchers, parental domination of governing boards, and the primacy of ‘parental choice’. Now, even involving parents in consultation is seen as too time-consuming. Nick Gibb, minister of state for schools, “said that people who question the government must be ‘ideologically driven’, and that the past practice of consultation with parents is a ‘rigid approach that allowed vested interests to prevent sponsors [of academies] from taking decisive action.” 11 This was overwhelmingly the key government line. In December, 2015, Lord Nash, junior schools minister, and himself a trust chair, stated his belief that consulting with parents on academy conversion is ‘overly formal and inflexible’, and that formal consultations ‘unintentionally raise the temperature of debate, rather like when one gets lawyers involved in divorce settlements’ and could be’ used to create delays’.12 Instead of consultation, Nash said that academy chains “communicating” their plans to parents would provide “robust assurances” to them. 13
- Determining what constitutes ‘quality’ and the measures of success to be applied to schools. Conservative MP Graham Stuart, when Chair of the Parliamentary Education Select Committee, declared publicly that he was “less interested in democratic accountability than quality” 14. This assumes, of course, that there is a consensus on what constitutes ‘quality’. This is, at least, doubtful.
- Ignoring and insulting experts. The stance of some senior politicians, including those at the top of the education tree, has been to belittle experts and ignore academics (e.g. “Britain has had enough of experts, says Gove” 15). The arrival of Michael Gove as secretary of state in the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition government of 2010 heralded a far more combative attitude to the education profession. A journalist by trade, Gove was as ready to ‘take on’ the teaching profession as his former boss and continuing paymaster Murdoch had been to confront journalists and printers in the 1980s, and with, he no doubt hoped, similar radical and deep-seated impact. Gove labelled bureaucrats, academics and teachers’ unions ‘The Blob’, seeing them as thwarting the changes that had to be made if the UK were to have a world-class education service – the nature of that service and the aspects he wished to see emphasised being, by his definition, that of competing in the international PISA league tables. The apparently deliberate alienation of a large tranche of education professionals set up an irreconcilable conflict and streams of often juvenile polemic. Gove labelled his opponents as “Marxist teachers hell bent on destroying our schools” and therefore as “enemies of promise” 16. Anyone disagreeing with Gove was charged with attacking the rights of children to a quality education, the right to define which had been embraced by the new establishment.
- Engaging ‘business values’ throughout the schooling system. The drive towards and constant lauding of the application of business values in schools ignores the fundamental differences between the provision of a public service and the characteristics of the market in a capitalist or mixed economy. So the DfE itself has overseen years of overspend and the commitment of lavish funds to its free schools and academies programme. It has uncritically held up as examples of best practice at least five ‘superheads’ who have variously had their funding agreements terminated, paid themselves second salaries, awarded generous contracts to partners and relatives, and been convicted of defrauding the DfE of tens of thousands of pounds. It has brought people with business values and experience and no experience in education indiscriminately into schools, and encouraged the marketisation of education professionals.
- Propounding policies based on intuition and anecdote rather than hard evidence. In a bewildering blizzard of policy commitments over six years, the government has brought in national strategies of school provision, assessment, curriculum and teacher recruitment based entirely on the personal preferences and prejudices of politicians.
So the origin of the national attitudes trickling down to the local arena can be clearly seen. The attitudes and actions of national leaders give permission to local politicians and officers to behave well or, as in this case, badly. The law, good practice, tolerance and a valuing of community engagement all go by the board when people single-mindedly believe that they, and they alone, have the answer to what is best for everyone else.
This has now resulted in a hotch-potch of educational provision with characteristics that defy logic and vision, and ignore any sense of the possible purposes of national schooling. The most evident outcomes of this, in our own local schools, are:
- Aggressively competitive behaviour between schools, such as advertising and other self-promotion
- The growing divide between chains of successful schools serving largely middle class areas and those serving areas of deprivation, bringing about increasing inequality
- An increase in connected business engagement with trusts, and a reduction in stakeholder engagement with schools
- The weakening of links between schools and the communities they serve
- Schools being seen more as an instrumental means of enabling high level leaving qualifications rather than providing community experiences of intrinsic value
- Increasing expectations on school staff and children, with less community understanding of pressures on them.
- Increasing redirection of public money towards salaries and expenses of leading staff and trustees/governors
- Continuing hardening of school performance judgments along the American Charter School model of knowledge-centred, test-focussed, ‘no excuses’ schooling
In 2014 and 2015, during the process of the forced conversion of Castle Primary School, the combined actions of officers of Somerset County Council, the academy broker employed by the DfE, and the Trust identified as the DfE’s preferred sponsor amounted to a sustained period of bullying of parents and staff, ignoring statutory requirements, lying to governors and parents, and breaking promises made and accepted in good faith by the governors of the school.
The refusal of the DfE, Somerset County Council officers and the local Conservative MP to investigate the evidence laid before them suggests they are all, at best, acquiescent, and at worst colluding, in practices which, not long since, would have been regarded as anathema to any one committed to the provision of the universal public good that is the education of our children.
- Wolfe, D (2016) A Can of Worms: blog: www.acanofworms
- 2011 Education Act, Section 56
- LA Adviser’s email to the author, 3rd February 2016
- LA Adviser’s email to the author, 2nd February 2016
- Minutes of meeting between School Broker and Governors, 21st October, 2014
- GB Minutes, 14 November 2014
- GB Minutes, 15 December 2014
- Minutes of a staff ‘consultation’ meeting, 14 January 2015, and parents’ information meeting, 30 January 2015.
- Email from LA broker to chair of governors, 15 November 2014
- Fowler, J (2016) Viewpoint: Farewell Education and Adoption Bill, welcome the Act, February 26, 2016 (http://www.lgiu.org/category/education/).
- Schools Week, 19.12.15
- Stuart, G (2014). A new world of school governance, BELMAS/NGA Conference, 1 November https://www.bera.ac.event/belmas-and-nga-a-new-world-of-school-governance , quoted in Wilkins, A (2016) Modernising School Governance: Corporate planning and expert handling in state education, London: Routledge
- Financial Times, 3rd June 2016: https://www.ft.com/content/3be49734-29cb-11e6-83e4-abc22d5d108c
- MailOnline 23rd March 2013: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2298146/I-refuse-surrender-Marxist-teachers-hell-bent-destroying-schools-Education-Secretary-berates-new-enemies-promise-opposing-plans.html